Let me begin by saying that I am not a fan of Mark Cavendish, not out of envy or spite, but because of the way I saw and heard him acting when I raced with him in 2012 at the Tour of Oman and the Tour of Qatar. He was World Champion at the time too and what I witnessed didn’t warrant much respect.
His opinions on LA et al just, well, suck IMO, which I delved into in the past.
Then there was the $50,000 per person ‘training camp’ set up by Armstrong in Mallorca last year that was attended by a Who’s Who of dopers, which was attended also by Cavendish and Wiggins.
L-R: Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie, Mark Cavendish, Brad Wiggins, Jan Ullrich and Johan Bruyneel.
However, there’s no doubt he’s a hell of a rider and, as he prepares to call time on his career, it’s worth considering it all for a moment.
And what a career it has been, one that was often perched on the edge of glory on one side and bitter disappointment on the other. He has always been a ‘sprinter’s sprinter’: impulsive, emotional, built for the 70km per hour fight for the line. And he’s a winner. He’s won everywhere, from the velodrome to Milan San Remo. He’s a former world and Commonwealth champion and Olympic medallist on the track, and a world champion on the road too.
Yet it’s the Tour de France that defines his career, and also the man himself.
As Cavendish put it after winning his first Tour stage for five years in 2021: “This race has given me the life I’ve had, and I’ve given it the life I had.”
He has a record-equalling 34 stage victories at the race, a record shared with the great Eddy Merckx, who had many more chances to win stages than Cavendish. Merckx was not only an accomplished sprinter but also a great climber and time trialist. For Cavendish, the flat is his natural habitat and he must suffer and hurt in the Tour whenever it goes uphill to have a chance of victory later.
At this year’s Tour there are six flat stages that, barring a successful breakaway, will likely end in mass sprints. Six shots at immortality…
That he is the greatest sprinter of all time is beyond any serious doubt. He became the first and only man to win the final prestigious stage on the Champs-Elysees four times in a row. Of the top sprinters, none come within even half of Cavendish’s TdF tally. Furthermore, his has been an 18-year career and he was at the top or very close to it for a good chunk of that. Most other sprinters’ whole careers barely last a decade.
It looks like he will have one more crack at breaking the Tour win record. He doesn’t need to win it to secure his place in the pantheon. Yet if he were to win one last time, it would truly put this remarkable career into very clear perspective.
One commentator I read today says he is ‘underloved’. I guess like most great sprinters there has to be a fire in the belly, a surliness or an anger that borders on the unpleasant, that helps them to win. Cavendish certainly has that, combined with the DNA, and that’s why he may just become the undisputed record holder of Tour stage wins this year.